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AofA People – Matthew Caley – Poet


9 Minute Read

Since his debut – Thirst [Slow Dancer, 1999] – was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best 1st Collection, Matthew Caley has published four more collections – the last three from Bloodaxe – and read everywhere from Novi Sad, Serbia to The Globe Theatre, London; from Prague’s Alchemy to Wayne-Holloway Smith’s living room. He’s recently taught Contemporary Poetry /Creative Writing at The School of English, St Andrews University, The University of Winchester and The Poetry School. He has just given the StAnza International Poetry Festival Lecture 2020. His 6th collection is Trawlerman’s Turquoise [Bloodaxe, 2019].

Where do you live?

Crystal Palace, South London

What do you do?

Poet

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

It’s strange as this questionnaire is forcing me to think about it and I rarely do. No idea why – when I was thirty and people accused me of being thirty I didn’t like the definition of it – I might lie upwards as much as downwards just to avoid definition or pre-conceived ideas. Maybe because I was hit by poetry/art very early on – and couldn’t really do anything else very well – I’ve just stuck doing those things – poetry, putting out books, readings, collaborating with artists, teaching art or poetry since the beginning – it’s a narrow seam and therefore my basic drives and actions and life remain pretty much the same and they don’t necessarily rely on physical fitness – though I feel Ok –- so it doesn’t feel so different.

Or I don’t notice the decline!

Plus, I don’t write directly from actual life and what happens to me. I write out of wordplay and structures and imagination. Some poets write their first book about childhood, their second about amorous relationships, their third about marriage, swiftly followed by decorating and divorce. My work messes with time and follows no chronology, it draws from life but tangentially, so there shouldn’t be much stress on age in it particularly.

I had a big party when I turned 50 and another when I turned 60 but they weren’t really about that. I discovered that a ‘big number party’ is the only way to see friends you haven’t seen for years. They’ll turn up for that. So it wasn’t really about me or my age but just a grand excuse to catch up. So I don’t view myself through the lens of any age. I’ve met people in their thirties who think they are old. It’s all relative. Of course, you can’t escape how others see you. Or noticing how certain people react because of your supposed age. I notice them noticing but I don’t care. So that solves that.

I would also think that whilst your stated aim to change the image of older folk is a great one, that you must also have to be careful to avoid—as any of these pro-these people or pro-that movements do—ghettoising yourselves. All persons are persons –just at different stages. I want to be around all ages of people -and luckily again – at the moment – I can be. This happens much more naturally in other countries than here I find. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults, older folks etc should be all mixed up in the same spaces. I don’t want to know only one strata. That’s stultifying. Advertising and social spacing can force people into their own age group. It’s good to mix it up. The media often stereotype older people so the image should be combatted but outside of the media folks need to mix it up themselves.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

More books! Two daughters. A flat. I know my insides and my outsides. I know where to stand in relation to the source in order to get a poem. I know it’s not my drive that does it. The arc of propulsion that drives the poems started before me somehow and I just keep in its slipstream and end up where it takes me. I’ve narrowed down what I do so it’s more focused. If I’ve gained any wisdom then I probably don’t notice it be because you can’t re-construct exactly how you were before. Learning and skills are invisible once you’ve mastered them. You have changed, but there’s no former you to compare with. On Magazine’s- [the post-punk group’s] -‘comeback’ LP Know Thyself their songwriter and lyricist Howard Devoto has a song ‘Dear Howard of Course’ which is a song to his younger self. But much of his younger self had been filmed or recorded and maybe he has a better memory than me. Much of the LP deals with ageing, though in a typically oblique way, there’s a song called Holy Dotage! But it’s a fired-up fast song. I would guess there are losses and gains but sometimes the losses are good and the gains not so good. I have a bad memory which means I don’t tend to dwell in the past much so I’m usually dealing with the present. The now is all we have so its best to deal exclusively with that or you end up in the ether.

What about sex?

I’ve always had great fun and luck in the amorous world. It’s hard to talk about it overtly – not because of prudism – though our current culture can be strangely prudish –but because our current moment could but not misread it.

Since meeting Pavla and seeing my daughters born it all changed. Now it’s blood-ties and love. A different thing. But also I think discretion in relationships is a very underrated virtue – you make yourself vulnerable in amorous relationships and whoever or how many people are involved, what goes on is a beautiful, private thing. Those might seem strange in a world where people post videos of their genitals to each other quite merrily and overshare at every opportunity. This vies with the overall prudish culture to make a strange mix. I feel very grateful for all my past relationships, brief or more substantial, with some very strong, powerful, original, and beautiful characters. They all meant a good deal to me. But Pavla and I have been together for 20 years now and have two daughters. She’s a very strong character herself and an artist. Love and sex are both mutual and mutable things, their form changes virtually every day – if you drift with it. Being with one person isn’t so different from having a few lovers because everything changes all the time. If you keep alert they renew themselves.

And relationships?

Of course, there are many different types of relationships – not just the amorous world. I’m lucky again. I’ve got a wide range of friends – men and women of all ages and types. Because I’ve taught in art schools and poetry schools I regularly meet 18-23 year olds. I know quite a few young poets. I meet my daughters’ friends. So I have some ‘young’ friends and friends of all types. It’s just that I don’t see any of them very often because I’m too busy or always travelling about – though I have friends scattered everywhere so I see those when I travel – but with friendships – they usually hold up if they’re meant to.

How free do you feel?

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ as yer man said. No-one’s truly free under Capitalism or Communism. It’s just seeming degrees of it. Freedom is internal.

What are you proud of?

I find that word a bit iffy – it gets misused so much. There’s a danger it can become a kind of vacuous Facebook meme type word. An Award Ceremony word. Like the word ‘hero’ has become. But if there’s another word then I take great delight – I like the word ‘delight’ – in my daughters. Mina is [13] a musician-playing violin and viola, in all manner of orchestras and quartets and solo and Iris [19] is studying Animation in the Czech Republic which is a brave leap forward. They are delightful and I delight in them and who they’re becoming. And Pavla, of course, who has put so much into them.

What keeps you inspired?

I read that Leonard Cohen quote a while back – the one where he says, ‘If I knew where good songs came from I’d go there more often’. It’s a good line but I was dissatisfied with it – why can’t you climb back up the rope ladder to the source? I’ve spent 6 years working on that. It’s not ‘inspiration’ which I’ve found is a flimsy and insubstantial friend. It’s a mixture of internal ‘athletics of the mind’ – technique[s] and knowledge of timing. Then you can go there when you want and get the poem you want, when you want. I’m much closer to getting that. I’m not perfect at it yet but it’s getting much closer.

When are you happiest?

Most of the time. My default mode is pretty OK – most of the time. [That really annoys some people I notice.] So if I get happy then I’m really up. I’m happier being a ‘hired’ gun rather than full-time. I’m happy ‘on-the-road’ gigging. I’m happy to get back to my beauties. I‘m a cup more than half full and slightly above the brim person.

When in Chartier in Paris. Having coffee on a frozen balcony. Listening to The Punch Brothers or Fleet Foxes or Lankum or O’Hooley & Tiddow at a concert with all the girls. The Rabbit fair, Konice, Moravia. On the road. Everywhere. It’s portable, happiness.

And where does your creativity go?

I prefer the word ‘imagination’. Always into the poems, the books.

What’s your philosophy of living?

I try not to have one! Stand in the place where you live. Be in the minute you’re in. Reduce your worries to a minimum. Walk everywhere. Advice is the worst way of giving advice. Develop out of what you lack. [Baudrillardian. Barthian. A bit of Schopenhauer. Kristeva. ] You don’t need much. Know what you do need. Avoid elegy and nostalgia. Don’t carry a phone. Tell the time by laundrettes. Appreciate everyone, especially your enemies.

And dying?

It’s another imaginative leap – until it isn’t I guess.

Are you still dreaming?

I rarely dream. The poetry replaces that, maybe. The world is enough.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

You should see some of my line-breaks.

Tales of the Heart, literally


1 Minute Read

I am 74. I have always considered myself to be fit and healthy, even though I have been living with the consequences of a serious rock climbing injury for the last 20 years. I have followed a healthy diet and lifestyle: largely vegetarian, low alcohol consumption, not overweight, no drugs for the last 40 years, and high level of physical activity.

So, one day in July this year, I was shocked when swimming in the sea near my house in N Wales – to discover I could hardly catch my breath. And then the following day when I started to go up the stairs at home, I found myself struggling to get to the top without stopping. At that point, I chose to tell myself that age has finally caught up with me, whatever that was supposed to mean. Any crap rationalisation rather than consider myself to be less than a perfect specimen of humanity!

The next morning, when I struggled to get out of bed because I was so breathless, I took my pulse and fear shot through me as I registered how fast it was beating. Then, after an emergency visit to my GP, I am being whisked off to my local district hospital in an ambulance with flashing lights, feeling somewhat detached from it all.

When told I have heart failure with the left side of my heart working at less than 25% of its expected capacity, I refuse to take it in and incongruously argue that I am healthy. Part of my reluctance at this point is because two days later I am due to fly to Corfu to take part in a week-long group process: Tantra Mantra with my beloved. At this point, I desperately hold onto the belief that I am still going to make it.

All in all, after a week in hospital I am discharged feeling weak, with two pieces of metal scaffolding (stents) in one of my coronary arteries, which had become completely blocked up with fatty deposits. My heart lifted, and I felt like cheering towards the end of the stenting procedure when the artery reappeared on the monitor screen as it finally became filled again with blood, signalling that the operation, during which time I had been fully awake, had been a success. It took all of ninety minutes – the blockage had been a long one and it required clearing a little bit at a time to avoid any mishap. And my breathing was easier.

For the first four weeks, I had to take things very easily, and was not allowed to drive. Since then I have been making a steady recovery back to normal day to day life: looking after the large house and smallholding where I live, taking my dog for walks, even logging a large fallen oak tree using a chainsaw. This morning I went for a rather cold, even in full wetsuit gear, but enjoyable swim in the sea. It was the end of October.

Although I feel a lot better, I am taking a lot of medication to control cholesterol, thin my blood and slow down the heart and more. This is to prevent more blockages and clotting around the stents as well protecting my heart muscle while it heals. I am even following a more strict, self-imposed diet: cutting out almost all dairy, less sugar and taking specific heart associated supplements.

Until I get the results of the MRI scan, scheduled to happen end November, I am still being treated for heart failure. I am hoping then for confirmation of the improvement I feel. Of course, as Ischaemic Heart Disease is the number one killer in the Western world, it is not surprising that I have some definite anxiety around the outcome.

Whatever the outcome I have been prompted to take stock of my life: accepting my ultimate mortality and not knowing when that will be. And there have been positive developments: in my close relationships. My beloved tells me I am sweeter now than before all this happened, and my daughter says she likes spending time with me and appreciates me. She and I have a chequered relationship which has been very tense at times gone by. It is a great relief that it is so much better now.

On self-reflection, I have realised I can be kinder to myself and that means being kinder to other people around me. I live at a slower pace and rest most afternoons. I expect less of myself and of others. What’s the point of driving myself to an early grave while there is still so much to live for. I don’t know about being sweeter, but I do know I can choose to be harmonious in the way I interact with those close to me rather than being over-reactive. And this makes for a happier life in many ways. And with so much experience of living it is time to choose the easy option!

I now look forward to sharing simple pleasures with my beloved, leading to a deeper, soft connection, without needing the excitement that is so often associated with friction. I think it amounts to being in the heart rather than the head. I have been on this journey for the last four years since finding a new lover. Together we have been through several positive, life-changing experiences. This is just the latest.

Poetry – how writing keeps me kicking up


1 Minute Read

‘For a poem to emerge properly, you have to avoid confronting it. You have to keep it in sight without looking at it directly.’ Fiona Sampson, poet, in Mslexia

Twelve years ago, I’d never written a poem. I wasn’t – so many say this – one of those people who started writing poems in their teens. At the time, I was a journalist whose paid work – the internet and falling sales of newspapers – was on the wane. I was unsettled, gloomy and undermined.

I decided radical action was needed on the writing front. I have always been a fan of lyrical language so I decided to try out writing poems. I knew – and this is key – that writing poetry was never going to earn me my daily bread but I wanted to do it for love. I had been on the hamster wheel of feature editors’ ever-narrowing commissions and instructions, this way I would re-discover writerly freedom.

Not that I expected it to be easy. I was in for the long haul. I signed up to City Lit’s Beginner’s course with contemporary poet, John Stammers at the helm. I’d never heard of him. His collection Stolen Love Behaviour had just come out and I devoured its post-modern bite. Here were poems that were crafted to the hilt, witty and John’s degree in philosophy drove the undertow.

Through John, I discovered so many poets – from Wallace Stevens to Clare Pollard – but most importantly, and this is a rare feature, I found out that John can actually pinpoint what works and doesn’t work in his pupils’ poems. Over the years, this has been such a boon as well as a pain.

For a long long time, my poems were embarrassingly bad. I’d have a few sizzling one liners, or a good title here and there but the struggle to write a decent poem was arduous and humbling. Luckily, I expected the climb to be arduous and was willing to plod on.

Christian Palen
Rose Rouse by Christian Palen

What is a good poem? Ah ha, there is the subject of many a book and author. Basically the content should be fresh, the voice should belong to that poet alone, the attitude should be ‘show rather than tell’ (ie cut out any of those literal lines), a big no to the overly poetic (John has a list of forbidden words and they include iridescence and meniscus!) and then the most difficult, something should emerge magically without the poet even knowing. Helen Mort who is well-known in the poetry world, has just won the Mslexia (a magazine for women who write) poetry prize and the judge, Sinead Morrissey said; ‘there’s a vortex in the middle of it that works like a spell.’ Exactly.

Funnily enough, I am still in one of John’s groups, now an invitation-only one with some damn fine poets – including Barbara Marsh, Judy Brown and Beatrice Garland who all have collections out, won poetry prizes and more. Wednesday afternoon is often the high point of the week for me. We meet in Covent Garden above a pub in Betterton Street while the Poetry Society does its refurbishment re The Poetry Studio.

The format is like this. We hardly ever discuss our personal lives. Only through the poems. John brings in three poems as photocopies, he doesn’t tell us who the poet is. He reads the first one and then we analyse/criticize them. He will bring in these poems for all sorts of reasons – they are badly edited, they have something but not everything, they sing with edge and vim etc – and we are in constant pursuit of what makes a good poem. This is a life’s work!

In the second half, we hand out photocopies of our own new poems to the group, read it out aloud to them and then stay silent while they discuss every aspect in terms of meaning and structure. I have squirmed many times in this position as it became apparent that my new poem didn’t make sense, was overegged – I have a proclivity in this direction – and just plainly did not work. Oh the ignoble position of the bad poet!

However, over the years, I’ve been in this group for five years – we published a group pamphlet Sounds of the Front Door in 2014 – my embarrassment has subsided and I now relish their comments even when they are constructively ruthless. Because that’s exactly what my poems need ie outside voices looking in.

In January, I’d just come back from post-Castro Cuba and written a poem Finding My Inner Orisha. A lot of it was in Spanish and through the group, I learnt that actually there was too much for people to understand so they suggested that I translate lines in both Spanish and English. I have now done that and hope it lends an incantatory aspect to the poem. Although I also decided that I didn’t want to do it all in that way as that was too much. The poet always has the last word. Although as we often discuss when reading other poets’ work, a good editor is also worth their weight in gold.

Killing your own darlings is such a useful lesson in life as well as poetry. Poets often have a proclivity towards something that takes them out of balance. Personally, I go for florid language and this can be so easily overdone. Restraint is needed. Going to The Group helps me refine my own editing skills. If I see that extra ‘fecund’, then I force myself to remove it.

This year, I found a publisher for my first poetry pamphlet – 20 poems and these days often called a chapbook – Tantric Goddess at the age of 64. It’s never too late to start. And I’m not giving up now, I intend to get a collection – around 60 poems – together next.

Tantric Goddess is published on Eyewear.

Tantric Goddess

Inspiration: Here Are The Top 20 Things Dying People Say They Regret


3 Minute Read

1.) Not traveling when you had the chance. Traveling gets harder as you get older, as more people depend on your presence, day-to-day and it ends up becoming more expensive to bring more people with you.

2.) Not learning another language. You probably took years of another language in high school. You should put it to good use.

3.) Staying in a bad relationship. It may feel hard to get out of a bad relationship, but it’s not worse than staying in it and wasting everyone’s time.

4.) Forgoing sunscreen. It may not seem like much, but sun damage adds up over the years, causing wrinkles and discoloration.

Read the full story here: Inspiration: Here Are The Top 20 Things Dying People Say They Regret

Greta Pontarelli, 61, Who Pole Dances | The Age Of Happiness


2 Minute Read

Greta Pontarelli is 61. She appears in front of the audience in a sparkling bikini, walks up to the pole, takes a deep bend, holds the pole in her hands, and lifts of the ground effortlessly. For the next few minutes, Greta performs an unbelievably complex and exciting acrobatic act on the pole. It“s impossible to believe that she started pole dancing just two years ago, at 59.

Read the full story here: Greta Pontarelli, 61, Who Pole Dances | The Age Of Happiness

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